Preparing for Easter: Easter Vigil Preaching

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.A prayerful and meditative vigil in expectation of Christ’s return at Easter became a common feature of the celebration of His crucifixion and resurrection.

The Vigil of Easter, which is celebrated at the end of Holy Saturday as the conclusion of the sacred Triduum, ushers in the celebration of the Resurrection of Our Lord on Easter Sunday. It is a very ancient custom that should not be neglected or replaced by the nouveau “Sunrise Service.” The so-called “Sunrise Service” is a modern convention that eliminates the Biblical and historical significance of Saturday in Holy Week. Saturday is not a gloss. The Vigil of Easter critically connects the days of Holy Week, especially Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, with the culminating celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It contains critical information about what Christ accomplishes for our justification and the recreation of the world. For this reason alone, it should not be eliminated by catering to convenience. Easter Vigil is purposed to interrupt our failure to mind ordinary time. The events of Good Friday and Easter are entirely inconvenient to human affairs — the Vigil sharply makes that point.

In the early centuries of the Church’s life, the people of God would hold vigil, which means “keep watch,” through the night in expectation of Christ’s return. This observance is a discipline, a spiritual exercise. A prayerful and meditative vigil in expectation of Christ’s return at Easter became a common feature of the celebration of His crucifixion and resurrection. The vigil consisted of prayer, psalms and readings, especially from the Old Testament, but also of the crucifixion narrative itself with preaching. Some Vigil observances, spilling over into the morning hours past midnight, culminate in the celebration of the resurrection at dawn with Holy Communion. During the vigil, those who had prepared throughout Lent to be joined to Christ were baptized, giving rise to the importance of proclaiming the connection between the events of the Gospels with the words of the gospel and those words to the gospel sacraments themselves. Easter Vigil sermons from the earliest centuries thus correlated the dawn of the new day at Easter sunrise with the newly baptized being joined to the entire Church that has been spiritually resurrected as Christ literally was raised from the dead.

Vigil Time

The inclusion of a clock within the sanctuary does not lend itself to good theological reflection. It never has. During the Divine Service or Mass, we are not on chronological time (chronos). Rather, when abiding at the intersection of Heaven and Earth, time and eternity, we experience sacred time (kairos). It is a kairotic event and, therefore, not measured by sequential time, but rather infuses our chronological time with meaning and significance. Easter Vigil owns this principle. It is a lengthy service by any measure and meant to be so. It is a vigil, a watching, and requires patience and endurance. The numerous long texts designated to the Vigil are given pride of place, even over preaching. The sermon, if one is preached despite some liturgical rubrics not requiring it, should be pointed, purposeful and poised to proclaim the Scriptures fulfilled by the victory of Christ.

The sermon should be pointed, purposeful and poised to proclaim the Scriptures fulfilled by the victory of Christ.

Vigil Texts

The Resurrection of God’s Messiah fulfills a myriad of biblical prophecies and narratives. Hence the extensive readings for Easter Vigil. A proper unfolding of the liturgy will include portions from the following texts: Genesis 1-2 (The Creation), Genesis 7-9 (The Flood), Genesis 22 (The Testing of Abraham), Exodus 14-15 (Israel’s Red Sea Deliverance), Isaiah 55 (Salvation Offered Freely to All), Ezekiel 36 (A New Heart and a New Spirit), Deuteronomy 31:19-30 (God’s Faithfulness to Israel), Ezekiel 37 (The Valley of Dry Bones), Job 19 (Job Confesses the Redeemer), Jonah 3 (Jonah Preaches to Nineveh), Zephaniah 3 (The Gathering of God’s People), and Daniel 3 (The Fiery Furnace). These Old Testament lessons are read, surrounded with prayers, psalms, and hymns, suppling the homilist with a wide spectrum of promise-and-fulfillment texts.

Vigil Sermon

Biblical themes abound, ranging from darkness giving way to light (“Jesus Christ is the light of the world” John 8:12), death to life, birth to rebirth, promise to fulfillment, creation to re-creation, defeat to victory and other such dichotomies. The preacher would do well to exploit one or more of these in the sermon, utilizing the liturgy and liturgical ceremonies which underscore the theology of the texts, as well as the marvelous hymnody (e.g. LSB #487 “Come, You faithful, Raise the Strain,” and “Christ Is Arisen,” #459 and the Sequence Chant of the “Victimae Paschali,” #460). The sermon, like the event and hymns themselves, should note tension, anticipation, and drama, yet without being theatrical or overwrought. The movements of Lent and Holy Week would have already set the mood for the Vigil.

The sermon on Easter Vigil might keep in mind how it was before dawn that Christ was raised from the dead. That is, “while it was still dark” (John 20:1), “exceedingly early” (Luke 24:1) and well before sunrise, “Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.” This feature of the biblical text alone renders the “Sunrise Service” a curious invention and certainly less faithful to the spirit of the New Testament than the vigil that places the visitation to the tomb when the Sabbath had ended — the early morning hours of Sunday. In other words, the Vigil sermon climaxes with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, not “nothing” until the Easter Service.

The Vigil sermon climaxes with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, not “nothing” until the Easter Service.

Indeed, the Saturday of Holy Week itself warrants specific attention. Here the homilist may want to utilize the texts designated for celebrations of the Eucharist on Easter Vigil: Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; and Mark 16:1-8. Be sure to note how Jesus of Nazareth was (1) really dead. Death was required by the sacrificial Lamb. Jesus was our Passover Lamb. We are the ones guilty of high treason. Now we are the ones justified in Him who was condemned of high treason against Caesar even though He be the King of kings. Looming large is the (2) fulfillment of the Law. The sabbath needed to be fulfilled in perfect rest on behalf of humanity in order, “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Jesus as King, representing all His kingdom people, fulfills the third commandment for both Jew and Gentile by resting through the sabbath. (3) Resurrection means transformation, not resuscitation. Jesus is raised with the future embodied existence of humanity, already outfitted (as it were) for heaven on Earth. As a result of His obedience unto death and perfect fulfillment of the Law (including the Sabbath), (4) He completes the old covenants and inaugurates a new covenant that justifies sinners who trust in His person, representation, and accomplishments. (5) In Baptism, we enter the tomb, we taste death, only to be caught up in the train of His victory over death through the resurrection, being translated from a kingdom of darkness into a kingdom of light. Finally, (6) in Holy Communion we now see and experience the Resurrected One and, by partaking, enjoin His resurrection and so the assurance our spirits have been resurrected and that our bodies will be so on the last day.

The sermon concludes with “The Exsultet” (Easter Proclamation), calling for the Faithful to rejoice at God’s deliverance of His people throughout history and especially in the forgiveness won through Christ, the true Paschal Lamb, who redeemed us by His blood and conquered death through His resurrection.

The Exsultet:

P: Christ is risen.

C: He is risen indeed, Alleluia!